A Post-Mortem of the 2020 Candidates Tournament


Controversial from the start, the 2020 Candidates Tournament promised to be like no other when GM Teimour Radjabov was unceremoniously removed from the line-up after sharing doubts that FIDE could guarantee his safety. Exactly halfway through the event, Radjabov’s concerns were vindicated as the tournament was abruptly postponed after FIDE admitted it could no longer guarantee the safety of players and staff. 

(title image: Death playing chess, Albertus Pictor 1480 – 1490 fresco; faded ribbon has death proclaiming “I chess mate thee”, inspired by the Black Death in Sweden)

The Federal Russian government, recognizing the public health risk COVID-19 posed, and after warnings from Russia’s Alliance of Doctors and the mayor of Moscow, closed its airspace and borders with only 12 hours warning. A tournament like no other, the venue became a scene of orderly chaos as players and seconds immediately attempted to arrange their departure through the last commercial flights out of Russia. 

For some – who could not find flights to their exact destinations, or lacked the appropriate transit visas – chaos reigned. Others were saved by SIMA-Land, the title sponsor of the tournament providing a private charter jet which after some delay, safely transported Fabiano Caruana and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, amongst others, to Rotterdam. Lichess’ man in Russia remains there by choice, with FIDE, the state government of the Sverdlovsk region, and their Consulate providing excellent support and care.

Pragmatically, the collapse of the tournament and its immediate aftermath were well handled. But in dissecting what went wrong, it can also be determined which problems remain unresolved. Rather than pointing fingers or playing a round of blame game, historians tell us that by analyzing the past, it is possible to learn and prevent those issues from affecting us in the future. The circumstances here were exceptional, but the lessons which can be learned are not. Many international sports organizations navigated these uncharted waters without ending up in the doldrums – there is no reason FIDE cannot also ensure a steady hand on the tiller.

And whilst the postponement of the Candidates affords immediate difficulties to FIDE, there are long term problems on the horizon unless a clear direction is soon given. 

The Greenlight

Around three weeks before the Candidates was due to start, a press release dated 6 March 2020 from FIDE stated it was not “legally and practically feasible” to postpone the tournament despite the rising risk of COVID-19. They announced the tournament would continue to go ahead, with minor modifications acknowledging the rising global public health risk. 

Aside from being another seemingly one-sided contract not in FIDE’s favor (see the history with World Chess Ltd to understand how FIDE seems to consistently find itself bound by unfair contracts), this also seemed to be going against the direction major international sports organizations were heading, following World Health Organisation (WHO) advice and other non-governmental organizations’ advice. 

On 5 March, the day before FIDE confirmed the Candidates would be going ahead, just under 100,000 people were infected worldwide, with COVID-19 present in 33 countries. WHO conducted a press conference where they stressed that everyone had to “be pulling out all the stops”, and that all society had to coordinate to protect the most vulnerable from the risk of infection. 

FIDE has clearly said they were carefully following WHO recommendations, amongst other governmental and non-governmental bodies, and that their medical commission gave them recommendations. It’s unclear exactly what the recommendations from FIDE’s own medical commission were, but they seem to have run contrary to the advice other multinational sports bodies received. Just a few days later, major sporting events were canceled or postponed worldwide, even those which appeared to have a far lower number of participants or contact and done behind closed doors with no spectators. 

Adding to the confusion, despite following the same updates from WHO, the Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) has said they “did NOT agree with FIDE that the event should continue”. It should be noted, their open letter dated 10 March was not as strongly or clearly worded as this – instead deigning to only “express concerns”, and making recommendations for how the tournament should continue. But in any event, it is unclear how chess, and even two organizations within chess, have interpreted WHO advice and recommendations so differently to other multinational sports organizations. 

Importantly, besides just considering what organizations, like WHO was saying, FIDE did not appear to fairly take players’ concerns into account. Most high profiles were Teimour Radjabov, who went through the correct channels with FIDE and shared concerns that safety could not be guaranteed. Radjabov did not feel his concerns were taken into account and was forced to withdraw after being issued what he described as an “ultimatum”. 

Wang Hao also publicly shared concerns about the safety of the tournament, posting on social media.

FIDE has said they reached out to him and discussed the steps they were taking – which FIDE says reassured him into participating, even without him having access to his seconds. From Wang Hao’s first-round interview, it is difficult to consider him as reassured, saying:

“Basically, I think we just shouldn’t play under such a situation. This is my opinion. I think that it is very disturbing to many players […] I am feeling very strange, I can hardly say it is 100% safe to everyone, it’s not a very good feeling if you’re always caring about this and get distracted from the game very easily.” (from 18:12 onwards)

We don’t know what FIDE said to Hao before the event, but it appears to lend strength to Radjabov’s description of being handed an ultimatum from FIDE – that “there was only one goal: to host the tournament”. It is clear Hao was not reassured by what FIDE had told him – from his post-game interview, and in an interview given after the event, it seems as if he was playing under duress or some kind of threat. 

If an ultimatum was given to Radjabov and Hao, it casts a more chilling light that FIDE initially said (and still maintains) Radjabov withdrew for “personal reasons”. If Radjabov had not publicly told us his side of the story, that there were risks he was unprepared to take, we would be none the wiser that he had safety concerns. 

It was also known weeks before the tournament that Ding Liren and his team would have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine in Russia (showing Ian Rogers’ sources as at least partially correct, despite FIDE alleging he had misconstrued the situation). Undoubtedly, this quarantine would have had a psychological impact on Liren’s readiness to play, as well as the practical impact after both Ding and Hao having to cancel planned training camps. Arguably, this can be seen through his play throughout the tournament, which hadn’t been at the level expected of the world number 3, and lacked the confident style of the player who, until overtaken by Magnus Carlsen, held the longest consecutive streak unbeaten. 

Importantly, had Radjabov, Liren, and Hao taken concerted action together, it is highly likely they could have forced the tournament to be postponed. The ACP was theoretically formed to prevent professional players from being forced into these sorts of situations. By taking a united stand through a faceless organization, the players couldn’t be punished by federations and organizations they are also reliant on for work. 

The ACP has said the players’ concerns were “a strong factor influencing [their] statement”. But the public open letter does not appear to have represented these players’ concerns against FIDE, and it is difficult to see how the ACP’s tagline – “injustice for one is an injustice for all” was carried out. If these extraordinary conditions, a global pandemic the scale of which has not been seen for a century, was not enough for the ACP to call for the immediate postponement of the tournament, the rhetorical question is what would be required for the ACP to take action?

Where the ACP is unprepared or unwilling to take action on behalf of professional players they claim to represent, it is up to the individual players to take action. It is surprising the 2750+ players do not already have a loose coalition or communication channel to discuss these issues. In unusual times, it is necessary for those at risk to take unusual actions. 

(FIDE’s approach appears reminiscent of the Chairman’s toast in Pushkin’s “A Feast in Time of Plague”, ending famously – and becoming a sarcastic saying in Russia “И, заварив пиры да балы / Восславим царствие Чумы.” (And after we have all drunk up / We’ll sing O Plague, we hail thy reign.))

Potential ultimatums from FIDE aside, the counter-argument some have advanced is that the players voluntarily agreed to play under these circumstances. They knew they would have to undergo quarantine, or risk contracting a highly contagious disease which could cause permanent organ damage to them or their loved ones, or even death. Anyone advancing this argument is surely being deliberately obtuse. 

For a professional chess player, playing the Candidates is the only way they can reach the apex of their career – being World Champion. Undoubtedly, this achievement is a childhood dream or lifetime ambition for many if not all these players. What happened to Radjabov clearly showed to the rest of the players what would happen if they were not comfortable with the conditions FIDE had arranged. In doing so, FIDE put the remaining players in a cruel situation and at unnecessary risk. Many people, let alone committed professional chess players, would take great risks to complete their life ambition. It was not fair to ask these individuals to decide between a risk to their health or a shot at the World Championship.

As outside observers, we also don’t know what the players risked. Underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or respiratory issues (like asthma) seems to increase the risk of permanent organ damage or death from COVID-19. Media and staff due to be at the event, to whom working the Candidates is not a lifetime ambition, chose not to take the risk of traveling through airports which become viral hotspots, for at least some this was because they were in a more at-risk demographic. It surely was a difficult decision for those media and staff (many of whom are freelance) to make – it must have been hellish for any player. 

It’s said that hindsight is 20/20 – that with the benefit of hindsight, flaws and mistakes become easy to spot. But well before the tournament began it was clear WHO advice was recommending all non-essential international activity to wind down. Other major sports leagues and events had been postponed or canceled. Three of the eight players either held public concerns or would be unfairly impacted psychologically by the tournament continuing. It was inevitable from the start of the tournament that it would be very unlikely to finish to completion. 

The fall of the Candidates Tournament

The tournament went ahead as planned. The same day the media entered Russia, the EU announced it would be closing its airspace from the USA. The day after, Russia announced it would be closing airspace from the EU. Leontxo Garcia, an El Pais journalist assigned to cover the Candidates, arrived from Spain and was put under a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed by the Russian government which he spent entirely in a hotel room. Just after the opening ceremony, Russia announced sporting events over a certain size had to be postponed or canceled. 

(Lennart Ootes for FIDE – opening ceremony previously discussed by us here)

It was clear from that announcement the Russian government was understandably going to continue prioritizing public health and increase restrictions further. In Moscow, the head of the Russian Alliance of Doctors publicly cast doubt on the official numbers. Rumors spiraled of a mysterious “Moscow pneumonia” which had led to COVID-19 numbers being under-reported officially. Moscow’s Mayor called for a lockdown and met with Putin to confirm the official tally was not reflecting the true nature of the situation in Russia. 

The changing nature of the realpolitik created a tense and uneasy atmosphere that permeated the venue and playing hall. The players themselves commented on it several times in post-game interviews. Some outright said “the atmosphere is very hostile”, others just that “the whole atmosphere doesn’t make you feel healthy”. This led to players feeling they “don’t want to play, don’t want to play here” and that they were “definitely not feeling okay”.

(Lennart Ootes for FIDE – Hou Yifan going through sound and video checks before being interviewed by Russian TV)

As with any major tournament, the players undoubtedly experienced magnified discomfort over smaller issues. But here, virtually every player shared discomfort over the same issue – whether that was Fabiano Caruana and Anish Giri humorlessly joking about how they would get home after the tournament, or Alexander Grischuk and Wang Hao outright saying the tournament should not have been held in the first place (cited above). With the range and extent of players’ criticism, it appears Radjabov’s comment of FIDE imposing an “ultimatum” is more persuasive, rather than FIDE having a fair and open discourse with the players prior to the start of the tournament. 

With a sense of inevitability, on the 28th of March at 10 am Ekaterinburg time, the government of Russia decided it was necessary to close Russian airspace from midnight the same day, to protect the public health and security of the nation against the threat posed by COVID-19. 

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave recalls that he received “various messages from FIDE officials” about the cancellation, receiving “an official email that was sent out around 11:30 am local time”. Shortly after, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich sent out a press release that the tournament would be postponed with immediate effect. The official reason was that as Russia had chosen to indefinitely close its airspace, it could no longer guarantee the safe return home of players and staff. 

In further correspondence with FIDE, they maintained that whilst the closure was “related” to the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic was “not equal” to the borders closing. When asked whether the tournament being closed due to the risk to staff and players meant that Radjabov’s fears were well-founded, FIDE replied: “the tournament had to be stopped for reasons different to the ones he hinted at. Related, of course, but quite different.” 

The difference from FIDE’s perspective being, Radjabov was concerned he would contract coronavirus – not be able to get home safely following Russia’s (understandable) public health concerns and decision to close borders. Whether this is anything but an academic distinction ignoring the ontological nature of the universe is not for us to decide. 

The venue became a hive of activity which was bizarre to see, given how sterile the environment had been prior. The infrastructure and equipment which facilitated the tournament were dismantled, expensive lenses, television cameras, kilometers of cables, carefully packed away, and then stored. The oversized props, sets, and stages, all accounted for, picked up, and transported away for an unknown Candidate’s future. 

The frustration and unease which had accompanied the tournament’s atmosphere remained, but there was a sense of excitement, pioneering energy. This particular hubris would become historic in the chess world. Those present were directly experiencing something which would be referenced for years to come, the unfolding events becoming part of chess folklore.

Only a few grizzled veterans of the chess world would be able to say they were there, man (as they take a drag on their cigarette and stare off into the middle distance, silence interrupted by the iceberg in their grime-crusted whiskey gently clinking the glass), you wouldn’t understand what it was like to be on the last ‘copter out of ‘Katberg. 

Looking to the future

The tournament going ahead was a clear mistake, and the opening ceremony was unforgivable. There is no clear ownership of those decisions, so it can only be assumed they were uniformly FIDE’s senior board members’ decisions. The only clear ownership of a decision came from Dvorkovich – alone in putting his name against continuing the tournament. Undoubtedly, this was a difficult and mature decision, but the correct one. Credit should be given for him sticking his head above the parapet when the majority of the senior board appeared craven at a whiff of responsibility. 

Equally, it should not be forgotten, FIDE and SIMA-Land between them arranged a private charter jet to ensure those who needed to leave Russia, could. From what was shared on the night, SIMA-Land owns the jet, and FIDE paid for the fuel costs, taxes, and relevant air fees. This is a remarkable logistical achievement and shows the responsibility FIDE felt (although somewhat undermined from the financial perspective by SIMA-Land having paid for the event costs, prize money, and giving FIDE a 20% cut of the prize fund). 

There are also silver linings for some – not least for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave who deserved a spot in the Candidates and now sits in the first place, compellingly showing exactly why he deserves to be there. FIDE sees the second half of the tournament resuming “as soon as the conditions allow it”, but in any event “it was agreed that if the tournament reached its 7th round, the results would stand no matter what”. Vachier-Lagrave is in an excellent situation, regardless of the next chapter.

And if (or when) the tournament does resume, the title sponsor, SIMA-Land, will get a second free round of publicity later this year when the second half goes ahead. Hopefully, they held pandemic insurance, just as the farsighted board of directors of Wimbledon did, netting them $140 million. There continues to be much FIDE and tournament organizers can learn from other international sports. 

(Lennart Ootes for FIDE – Nepomniachtchi thinking near Sima-Land’s logo)

There are also major questions. The first major headache for FIDE is what happens to Radjabov. Some have suggested he should automatically have entry to the 2022 Candidates Tournament. FIDE has said this “sounds like a sensible suggestion”, but are unable to commit to it until later this year. The ACP has said they do not yet have a position on the Radjabov situation. But regardless of how it is dealt with, he understandably is “feeling frustrated [..] I have warned of it [that the tournament is not safe] and it’s exactly what happened. And I am left aside.”

Radjabov has since been joined by the Azeri Federation in his complaint, which has submitted an official open letter on his behalf. It appears FIDE will have to carefully balance-taking mature responsibility for its actions, whilst also ensuring a major chess player and chess federation are not left in an unfair situation. It is worth bearing in mind, Radjabov is undoubtedly one of the few individuals with the financial means to fund extensive legal action against FIDE. 

FIDE is not the only chess organization finding itself in trouble. Much soul-searching will presumably be happening at the ACP, reflecting upon itself and its purpose. An organization designed to protect chess professionals was here unable to defy FIDE, in a once in a lifetime pandemic. To be seemingly unable to protect those who spoke out before the tournament began publicly, and to have still not come up with a position on Radjabov, must naturally lead to questions about their effectiveness and who they actually protect. 

Much of the ACP’s board is involved with FIDE at a senior level, are in the leadership of their own national federations, or are also tournament organizers, but the ACP does not believe this work generates any conflicts of interest. Those from the outside may consider these as direct conflicts of interest. Notably, it is coming up to a FIDE election cycle and the current Director-General of FIDE, Emil Sutovsky, was Chairman of the ACP for a decade. It may not be outside the realm of possibility that others within the ACP may have spotted an opportunity. 

Major issues also arose at the tournament itself. In its final days, there was a lack of clear communication and a loss of tournament hierarchy. Essentially no FIDE officials were at the tournament, and without hierarchical order or a final arbiter on disputes, a power vacuum formed. In true Hobbesian tradition, various factions formed in an attempt to seize control of the tournament, and promptly entered a state of hostility against each other. Disturbingly, the one FIDE official present appeared to join one of these factions, which deposed the well-respected Tournament Director, apparently known for his excellent organizational ability. 

(The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan in 1651, a foundational analysis of social contract theory, with a pessimistic outlook on human nature and behavior when individuals are left to their own devices)

The coup was successful, in the sense, they ousted the Tournament Director. The faction which did split off seemed to have little knowledge about chess, not recognizing Fabiano Caruana or Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Charitably, the split could have occurred due to holding different ideas on the standard of health and safety at the tournament. However, they used derogatory language about all chess players, in front of professional chess players and media, and had poor organization overall. Potentially Leviathan remains correct; everything boils down to lust for money and thirst for power. 

These circumstances were exceptional, but FIDE still stands to learn much from unraveling what went wrong. For example, implementing clear communication channels with the players, organizers, and media is vital in pressured situations. Similarly, knowing their people and their professional boundaries well-enough to trust them to not get involved within the organizing committees’ relationships and politics is vital. Trust, goodwill and rapport are precious resources; but FIDE seems willing to risk these with the turn of the wind. 

With little over the board chess now lined up, FIDE is now in uncharted waters. Playing online chess is the only route available for FIDE to remain relevant over the next few months. Online servers have been instrumental in modernizing the oldest played game and bringing new generations and demographics to the sport. This is also a vital time for FIDE to be introspective. FIDE’s new charter specifies it is a non-profit, with the purpose of promoting chess activities, in all their forms (incidentally, it also especially encourages any effort aimed at improving good governance in all chess organizations). The approach FIDE takes over the next few weeks and months, as it forays into the online realm, will be instructive in understanding where FIDE’s priorities rest. 

This is a complex time for FIDE, which is now afforded multiple avenues and opportunities to learn from this series of blunders. As an organization, the “new FIDE” can show itself to be a responsive, forward-thinking organization, develop robust crisis management procedures, and communication channels for future events. The alternative – to stagnate like an old pond, without any freshwater flowing through it – will show the “new FIDE” to be a Potemkin village rebrand, behind which kickbacks and cronyism likely remain.

Source: lichess.org


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